The Big Picture
My winner/loser scenario is a David and Goliath story, still in its early stages but picking up
serious steam, embedded in a larger conflict between two colossal mediums. I am interested
primarily in podcasts, but before digging into podcasts specifically we need to step back and see
the larger picture, a face-off between two mediums, with terrestrial radio on one hand and
streaming services, including streaming radio, on the other.
Terrestrial radio is a perennial juggernaut that has weathered numerous death threats
over the last century, including the advent of television and the music video. With 89% of the
population listening at least once a week in 2019 (1), we can decidedly say that radio is alive and
not evaporating anytime soon. However, that being said, ad spending on terrestrial radio in the
U.S. fell from $20.8 billion in 2006 to $17.6 billion last year(2); likewise, the percentage of weekly
listeners has been decreasing ever so slightly from 92% in 2009 to 89% in 2019(3). Meanwhile,
the percentage of people in the U.S. listening to streaming content has blossomed from 12% in
2007 to 60% in 2019(4), with younger demographics, ages 16-34, spending significantly more
time listening to music on streaming services than on terrestrial radio(5).
As for nonmusical content, monthly podcast listenership in 2018 was estimated at 73
million, or 26% of U.S. listenership, accounting for roughly 40% of online audio overall(6). That
number is expected to nearly double by 2022, increasing to 132 million(7), with podcast
advertising revenues breaking $1 billion in 2021(8). While I could not find much data for terrestrial
talk radio in terms of advertising revenue, the terrestrial “Talk” format was down by 12.5% in
terms of average number of listeners in 2018(9). As online audio content continues its ascent with
podcasts lending serious momentum to the movement, who are the real winners and losers?
Wayne’s World v.s. Corporate Media
Podcasts as a medium were brought into the world by Apple in 2005 under visionary CEO Steve
Jobs. At the time, the concept was so new that Jobs struggled to describe it,
“It’s sort of like TiVo for radio, for your iPod,” he said. “It’s not just the ‘Wayne’s World’ of
radio, but real radio is jumping onto this.”(10)
Indeed real radio is finally jumping onto it, and in a big way; however, some of the
biggest players have paid a hefty price in their effort to adapt. America’s two largest radio
companies, iHeart Media and Cumulus Media, both recently filed for bankruptcy due to
overreaching acquisitions(11). While both bankruptcies are somewhat self-inflicted and influenced
by the 2008 market crash, both companies cite difficulties imposed by new forms of streaming
audio competition(12). Indeed, no small part of both companies’ acquisitional burdens were
accumulated in an effort to keep up with emerging formats, and this year both companies
continue to invest in podcasting(13). Time will tell if they are too big to fail (it seems like
iHeartMedia is bouncing back as it prepares for an IPO). Likewise, time will tell whether there
will always be a space for the little guy or if he will be lost in a deluge of premium content from
the big conglomerates. But for now, there is still a case to be made that Wayne’s World is
winning, albeit in a guerilla fashion, forcing the bigger players to invest billions in an effort to
With low barrier to entry, streaming services have always been a space open to the little
guy, a largely unregulated space that allows room for the weird, thereby becoming a hotbed for
the innovative and groundbreaking. While radio listeners have access to a limited range of
regulated content at specific times in specific places, podcasts listeners can choose from a
practically infinite variety of subjects at anytime, anywhere they have access to data. Indeed,
podcasts offer not just a variety of subject matter but also a variety of formats and experiences
that are only beginning to be explored from games, to driving tours, to how-to’s, to micro “shorts”
like 5 minute news updates, the possibilities abound.
As bigger players move into the podcasting space, they would do well to take cues from
the successes of their idiosyncratic precursors, taking advantage of opportunities for innovation
and not trying to duplicate the experience of terrestrial radio in a different space. This holds true
not only for producing content but also for monetizing that content. While podcasting has 40% of
the listenership of online audio overall, it brings in less than 15% of ad revenue(14). Podcasts
have traditionally sought alternative means of funding in crowdsourcing and subscriptions. It will
be interesting to see if the bigger players can adapt or whether they will stick to their traditional
tactics which may or may not be effective in this space.
1 PEW Research Center, “Audio and Podcasting Fact Sheet”, 2019,
www.journalism.org/fact-sheet/audio-and-podcasting, Accessed September 2019.
2Pollack, Juddan, “Radio’s Health Is Better Than You Think, But What’s The Long-Term Prognosis?”, 2018,
https://adage.com/article/media/mixed-signals-radio-s-health/313110, Accessed September 2019.
3 PEW Research Center, “Audio and Podcasting Fact Sheet”, 2019.
5 Music Business Association. (2018). Share of time spent listening to music via selected sources in the United States
as of July 2018, by age group . Statista . Statista Inc.. Accessed: September 24, 2019.
6 Edison Research’s Infinite Dial,
7Activate. (2018). Number of podcast listeners in the United States from 2014 to 2022 (in millions) . Statista . Statista
Inc. Accessed: September 24, 2019.
8“FY 2018 Podcast Ad Revenue Study: A Detailed Analysis of the US Podcast Advertising Industry”, prepared by
pWc, June 2019, https://www.iab.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Full-Year-2018-IABPodcast-
Ad-Rev-Study_5.29.19_vFinal.pdf Accessed: September 24, 2019.
9 Triton Digital. (2019). Change in the average number of radio listeners in the United States in December 2018, by
format . Statista . Statista Inc.. Accessed: September 24, 2019.
10“Herrman, John, “Podcasts Surge, but Producers Fear Apple Isn’t Listening”, The New York Times , May 7, 2016,
www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/business/media/podcasts-surge-apple.html, Accessed: September 24, 2019.
11MacIntyre, Hugh, “Bankruptcy Has Come To Both Of America’s Largest Radio Companies”, Forbes , March 8, 2018,
#67ccc21872e8, Accessed: September 24, 2019.
13“Wondery Creates Podcast-Radio Alliance With Cumulus Media”, Inside Radio, May 3, 2019,
11e9-96e0-b755cbc05aee.html, Accessed: September 24, 2019.14Rosenblatt, Bill, “New Study Shows Limits Of Ad Revenue For Podcasts ”, Forbes , June 9, 2019,
slowing-down/#7fa469783f94, Accessed: September 24, 2019.